Apparently the Buddha’s famous discourse on the not-self didn’t immediately convert everyone to his way of thinking. Sometime after delivering it, according to Buddhist scripture, he runs into a man named Aggivessana, a braggart who has assembled a large audience to watch him vanquish the Buddha in a debate about the self. Aggivessana begins the proceedings by challenging the Buddha’s claim that the self can’t be found in any of the five aggregates. He declares, “Form is my self, feeling is my self, perception is my self, mental formations are my self, consciousness is my self.”
This is a pretty blatant provocation, a direct assault on the Bud-dha’s worldview. But the Buddha, being the Buddha, remains calm. He says, “Very well then, Aggivessana, I will cross-question you on this matter.”
If you’ve read many of the Buddha’s discourses, you know that Aggivessana’s convictions will not survive the ensuing dialogue in good shape. The only question is which rhetorical tool the Buddha will use to dispel his interlocutor’s confusion. Turns out the answer is the “king” metaphor.
The Buddha asks, “Would a consecrated, noble-warrior king—such as King Pasendai of Kosala or King Ajatasattu Vedehiputta of Magadha—wield the power in his own domain to execute those who deserve execution, to fine those who deserve to be fined, and to banish those who deserve to be banished?”
“Yes, Master Gotama,” answers Aggivessana. “He would wield it, and he would deserve to wield it.”
The Buddha then says, “What do you think, Aggivessana? When you say, ‘Form is my self,’ do you wield power over that form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus’?” Aggivessana says nothing. The Buddha repeats the question. Aggivessana remains silent.
Now the Buddha pulls out the big guns. He reminds Aggivessana that “when anyone doesn’t answer when asked a legitimate question by the Tathagata [the Buddha] up to three times, his head splits into seven pieces right here.” At that point Aggivessana looks up and, omi-nously, sees a spirit with an iron thunderbolt in hand. (The spirit is aptly named “Thunderbolt-in-hand.”) The spirit speaks up, warning that if Aggivessana “doesn’t answer when asked a legitimate question by the Blessed One up to three times, I will split his head into seven pieces right here.”
Thus incentivized, Aggivessana answers the Buddha’s question: “No, Master Gotama,” he doesn’t, he admits, have complete power over his body. The Buddha then runs through the other aggregates—feeling, perception, and so on. Aggivessana sees that, no, he doesn’t have the power over any of these things that a king has over his domain.
So the Buddha has made his point. You—the “you” that experiences feelings and perceptions and entertains thoughts—isn’t really in complete control of these things. If you think that somewhere inside your head there’s a kind of supreme ruler, a chief executive, well, there’s some question as to where exactly you would find it.
Twenty-five hundred years later, the science of psychology is talking the Buddha’s language. Well, not exactly his language; psychologists don’t often assert that you’re not the king of your personal domain, since these days there aren’t many kings who wield actual power over their own domains. Psychologists use more modern terminology. As Robert Kurzban, a professor of psychology at Penn, puts it, “ ‘You’ aren’t the president, the central executive, the prime minister.”
This is a matter of nearly unanimous agreement among psychologists: the conscious self is not some all-powerful executive authority. In fact, according to modern psychology, the conscious self has even less power than Aggivessana attributed to it after the Buddha clarified his thinking…